Ricky Gervais: They call me the entertainer

Ricky Gervais came late to showbiz via <em>The Office</em>. Now, at 49, he appreciates every moment

On a Monday morning in November, Ricky Gervais is sitting in his sparsely furnished office in north London above an estate agent on a Hampstead Lane, coffee in hand and feet crossed on the desk in front of him. He is pondering the idea that comedy is about making people think. "I don't want to just do anodyne stuff they could do themselves. I don't want to go out there and point out the bleeding obvious. I don't want to remember the Seventies and get a laugh - it's cheating," he tells me. "Obviously, you are an entertainer; the first thing is to make people laugh, but not at any cost. I don't want to lower myself to the lowest common denominator. I don't want to win over a crowd that I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley . . . I don't find this badge of honour in making 20 dickheads in chocolate cock helmets laugh."

This is what talking to Gervais is like: the rising tide of an argument, the swerve between serious and hilarious, the smack-down absurdity of the punchline. He is a master of the artful rant. It's not dissimilar from his stand-up: his shows are like essays decorated with gags. He establishes a premise (such as the feasibility of the Noah's Ark story) which he then unpicks, leading the audience down myriad digressions (is God gay?). But there will often be a moment when an instructive voice, the one that wants to make us think, slices through the anecdotes about masturbating to deliver a message. Towards the end of his stand-up show Science, he sums up his performance as an investigation into the rational and non-rational, and stresses, in earnest, the importance of collapsing myths: it's "fear that threatens rational thought more than anything".

Science, Gervais says, was his first love, then philosophy, which he studied as an undergraduate. The rigours of both disciplines, he says, inform his material: logical investigation and rational inquiry. Comedy should be not so much emotive as intellectual. "As soon as emotion comes into it, it doesn't work," because that's when people take it personally, and take offence. Good comedy should be about empathy.

For some, hearing Gervais lay out the moral code of comedy will sound strange. He offends people (mostly the Daily Mail) often, and knows it. "I hope I haven't offended anyone, I really do. It's not the point," he says towards the end of Science. "But if I have offended anyone - and I'm sure I have - then I don't apologise for it." He mocks comedians who bow meekly to public pressure and pretend they didn't mean what they said: "Well, you shouldn't have said it then," Gervais says, enraged, to his audience. "You're an idiot."

One of his methods, instead, is to play the bigot: to invite an audience to mock him and so expose the absurdity of his views. In his fictional characters - the office manager David Brent and the film extra Andy Millman, say, from The Office and Extras - it is easy to disassociate the script from the man. But when Ricky Gervais plays the bigot Ricky Gervais, as he did in his first break, on The 11 O'Clock Show on Channel 4, and as he does in stand-up sketches, the line between man and role is blurred. It can be risky. There's a moment in his Politics show when he imagines a conversation between Hitler and Nietzsche, with Hitler as a creeping fanboy and Nietzsche his idol, appalled by how Hitler has misinterpreted his work (Gervais plays both parts, leaping from side to side). It ends with Nietzsche nervously admitting he's written a new book, Gypos: Do We Need Them?. In one performance, someone yelled out their support. Gervais was horrified: "I went, 'Nononononononono!' . . . But you can't legislate against stupidity."

It's a joke, but only just. Gervais despairs of intellectual lethargy - from unironic racism to the audience member who doesn't get it when he is setting himself up as the target. He acknowledges that it can be a fraught process. "Sometimes I think, 'Is that clear what I'm doing?' You get a little pang. You've got to be able to do it in front of anyone, and then you know you're OK."

We are coming, in the first part of our conversation, dangerously close to deconstructing comedy - which he finds absurd. "We're putting together a little chart here about what comedy is! Never teach comedy. It's ludicrous. It's like teaching someone sight. If you can see, it's pointless; if you can't see, it's pointless. ­Arguing comedy is a bit like arguing about the existence or non-existence of God. You have no interpersonal language at all. It's Wittgenstein's lion - there's no point!"

Ricky Gervais was born in Reading in 1961, the youngest of four children. His parents, Jerry and Eva, met during a blackout in the Second World War. At school, he was clever, locking down world-views precociously early (he became an atheist at the age of eight). In 1979, he went to University College London to read philosophy. As we talk about his younger self, he suddenly breaks off: "I feel slightly guilty that I feel I've never made the most of anything." It sounds absurd, coming from a man with global success; but he looks strangely morose. "Just because my quest for knowledge seemed to be a lost art by the age of about ten or 11. Then, I knew I could get by without trying that hard - even at university. The Office was the first thing I tried my hardest at - it was like a revelation at 40. And now I realise that you shouldn't be proud of being smart; you shouldn't be proud of being lucky. You should be proud of trying your hardest. I'm pretty born again over that."

The revelation at 40: it's this fact that titillates fans and detractors alike, that success came so late for Gervais. For years, he managed bands and was events manager at the University of London Union. In 1983, his own band, Seona Dancing, released two singles ("More to Lose" and "Bitter Heart") that reached 117 and 70 in the charts. He has said before that many of his creations - Millman, Brent, et al - are "there but for the grace of God" characters; people he was dangerously close to becoming, their lives turning out not as they'd hoped.

The comedian Robin Ince knew Gervais long before his revelation. Gervais had booked Ince for a gig at the union in the early 1990s. The pair became friends, drinking in "subterranean bars", Ince says, bonding over a shared love of British variety comedy and 1970s sitcoms. They would spend hours trying to work out what the best pattern would be on Celebrity Squares: "pointless conversations". They tried out material, too, recording sketches and mucking about, but it never quite came together. To Ince, the catalyst for Gervais's surge of activity and artistic success is obvious: he met Stephen Merchant.

Gervais had moved to Xfm, the radio station, to work as head of speech in 1997, and interviewed Merchant for a job as his assistant. They got on immediately, and Gervais hired him. When I spoke to Merchant earlier this year he described their relationship, tenderly, as something between a marriage and brotherhood: "I think at the core it's a shared set of interests and values. We've been working together for 12 years and we've worked at a relationship from early on that works well for us. There's a mutual respect."

According to Ince, Merchant gave Gervais a work ethic. Whenever Gervais tried to wing it on the radio show, riffing at random on a topic, Merchant would insist on writing it through, planning. As Merchant said: "There's a sense of filling in each other's weaker spots . . . my suspicion is that we can do stuff apart but when we do stuff together it will be better. It's got that kind of spark to it, I guess."

Their opening gambit as a partnership, The Office, was born of a short film that Merchant had made as his final piece on a BBC producers' traineeship. "Quite often it's a serious thing," Jon Plowman, the former head of BBC comedy, says, "about Chinese human rights or the exploitation of Indian workers, but Stephen made this thing about a man who had been Ricky's boss at some point." The pair pitched it to Plowman. He weighed up the risk of a new series versus the safety of returning to an old one ("I think it was People Like Us"). He was won over by the pair's bulldozing conviction that the idea was infallible: "It was already a hit in America in their heads, and they were probably making the first movie."

Gervais and Merchant insisted on full artistic control, including casting, and the show went out on BBC2 in July 2001. Rumours spread later on that the BBC had tried to cast household names in the main parts, including that of David Brent, but Plowman wryly denies them, saying: "I certainly don't remember anybody suggesting anyone other than Ricky was going to play that role."

On its first airing, The Office was received quietly. But by the second series it had become a hit: the final, gleeful two-part Christmas special in 2003 was watched by 6.5 million people. Now it is a global phenomenon, sold by BBC Worldwide to 80 countries, including the United States.

As Plowman said, it broke the unwritten rule that a British programme would never make it in America. It meant Gervais and Merchant could do anything. So they stopped - cutting off The Office in its prime after just two series (like Fawlty Towers, an oft-cited inspiration).

For their next project, Extras (2005), Gervais played Andy Millman, a hapless film extra who eventually achieves success with his own catchphrase-laden sitcom, When the Whistle Blows. The result is a realisation of Gervais's greatest fear: making a programme that is publicly adored but critically mocked, and losing his own integrity in the process. Millman ends up on Celebrity Big Brother, turning on his fellow contestants in shame: "What are we doing? Selling ourselves, selling everything."

The cultural critic Mark Lawson (who appeared in an episode of Extras playing himself) interpreted the moment as autobiographical - not that Gervais would ever be caught near such a programme. "I think he worries about that all the time. I thought there was quite a degree of self-hatred or at least self-questioning in those sequences about what he should be doing," he says.

Gervais has always been adamant that he would not become trapped by success, the dismal fate of a national treasure. He sidestepped predictability by working in the US, acting in films (Night at the Museum, Ghost Town) and making his own. In these, he appeared to shift into slightly more serious mode, reflecting on the non-existence of God in The Invention of Lying (2009) and on his own life in Cemetery Junction (2010) - about a boy plotting his escape from Reading in the 1970s. But just when you think you've understood the trajectory Gervais is carving out, from professional provocateur to serious dramatist, he defies you. One of next year's projects, besides a global stand-up tour and the CGI animated version of his children's book series Flanimals, is Life's Too Short - a "knockabout comedy", as he puts it, about a showbiz dwarf.

What is it like to be friends with Ricky Gervais, I ask Robin Ince. "Have you ever read William Golding's Lord of the Flies?" he replies. While the pair were on tour (Ince has been a support act for a number of the stand-up shows) Gervais would draft in technicians to hide in Ince's dressing-room cupboards and ambush him, or smear things in his sandwiches.

“You don't have a day off," Ince recalls affectionately. "It's not like you just turn up to a theatre. You find yourself being buried on a beach in Newcastle, or being hung upside-down on a memorial somewhere . . ."

Gervais was relentless, toying with Ince like a mouse (a prequel, perhaps, to the podcast mockery of his friend and pet fool, Karl Pilkington). He does it to amuse himself as much as others, Ince says. "When we were on tour I used to describe him as a European emperor in the 18th century who bangs out something on the piano and goes, 'Listen, everyone, aren't I brilliant?' and everyone applauds, and then he says, 'Now I'm hungry. Get my chicken.'"

But if Gervais is an emperor, he is also a middle-aged man living quietly in Hampstead with his partner since university, the producer and author Jane Fallon. Often he will be at home, "sitting in pyjamas, watching some reality show, doing nothing in particular", Ince says, "save for eating ham". Ince observes that Gervais in life, as in conversation, swings between extremes (he "doesn't waste time with middle moods"). He can swoop from practical joke to Hollywood meeting, from a gag about fat people to a denunciation of organised religion, barely pausing for breath.

Another early connection between Gervais and Ince was their shared, vociferous atheism. Ince says Gervais will often call him in a fury at some example of religious fundamentalism. In a story he often tells, Gervais lost his arduous childhood faith ("I loved Jesus, he was a hero . . . I wanted to be like him. Don't quote that out of context") when his older brother Bob asked him why he believed in God and their mother snapped: "Bob!" He knew she was hiding something and lost his belief within the hour. Ten years later, in another crucial hour (he is always precise with his times, his dates, his names), Gervais had a panic attack while revising for his A-levels. He was learning how a bee transports pollen from flower to flower and couldn't see how evolution was responsible, for a moment losing his rational mind. "I thought, 'What do I do? What do I do? Just calm down!' and I worked through it . . . you go back to basics and it works, evolution works it out for you. It was because of the supposed art and poetry of it, but it's purely functional. I wasn't quite sophisticated enough and I panicked . . . If that's my breakdown, I've come out OK, haven't I?"

Religious fascism, Gervais tells me, is one of two things that make his "blood boil"; the other is animal cruelty. Politics feels remote, though he did vote (Labour) in the last election. But when he cares, it is passionately. His anger will course across the room and turn on any of his pet hates: those who hurt animals ("I want to stab them, I want to batter them to death"); religious people who challenge his atheism ("The burden of proof is on you! You started it!"); the public's capacity to whinge at politicians ("I'd be a day in Downing Street. 'You fucking wankers! Fuck off and die!'"). His champion tirade, though, is on the subject of the BBC - a "great institution" that he believes should be cherished. The notion that it should compete on a commercial level in order to justify its existence appals him.

I ask him if he'd call himself an elitist, and he replies: "Yeah! Elitism's good. I love the fact the 'hockey moms' in America accused Obama of being an intellectual. 'He's got a degree! He's done learning! He knows stuff! Boo!' I think elitism is usually mixed with snobbery, which it shouldn't be. But a quest for excellence? How can that be a bad thing? Most things are rubbish, in any genre. Most art is rubbish, most music's rubbish, most TV is rubbish, most carpentry is rubbish. But 10 per cent of things are great. And why wouldn't you want everyone to go for the 10 per cent? Taste doesn't cost money. . . Give a kid white bread and saturated fats to shut it up - it's going to be a fat pig like you and then it's going to die of diabetes. If you make it eat a carrot, it's going to eat carrots . . . It's your choice as an adult, and it's not a political issue at all. Don't make your kid into a fat foie gras goose because you can't be bothered!"

In many ways, it is his manifesto: a pitch for excellence. It's your life, your responsibility, and the only person you can blame for anything, or to whom you are accountable, is yourself. He feels it so strongly because he has lived it, proved it, pursued artistic recognition long after most might have given up. He sees laziness in others and remembers the years wasted, when he "didn't make the most of anything". He works extraordinarily hard (everyone I speak to about him notes this as the main driver of his success: his unrelenting capacity for work) and abhors the slightest hint of mediocrity, of not trying your best, of failure - of not aspiring to make it into that 10 per cent.

Before we say goodbye, I ask him if he is optimistic about the world, about the future. Or are we doomed? Yes, he says, because the world is full of people who lap up The X Factor, and Jordan's autobiography outsells Nelson Mandela's. Considering the question further, leaning back in his chair, he says: "First thing I thought of wasn't global warming, or a third world war. It was the fact that we've got enough singers now. Let's stop finding more singers. We don't need any more entertainers. We don't need more pictures of Posh and Becks. We don't need women who show their bits to be role models to little girls. We don't need any more of that. Go and make something. Go and make something to be proud of."

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman.